There are definitely ways to teach autistic children and children with disabilities that are effective and that take into account their different, individual, unique ways of being and interacting in the world. Unfortunately schools that often make the news employ “methods” that violate a child’s rights and that, sickeningly, cause physical and even psychological abuse. One such school is the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (JREC) in Canton, Massachusetts, which has long been known — been notorious — for its use of electric shock to discipline students with disabilities including autism, mental retardation or emotional-behavioral issues.
On Tuesday, a stomach-turning video of a student at the JREC who was restrained and shocked for hours was played in court. Then 18-year-old Andre McCollins was a student at the JREC in 2002 when he was shocked 31 times on October 25 of that year because, as the video reveals, he refused to take off his coat. His mother, Cheryl, has filed a lawsuit.
(The video can be seen via Fox News. It is horrifying.)
A judge had ordered that the video of Andre’s ordeal be sealed eight years ago. But on Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Barbara Dortch-Okara denied requests by the JREC’s lawyers to prevent FOX Undercover’s camera from recording the video as it was played. The Boston area Fox News affiliate describes the video, which was filmed by a classroom camera at the JREC:
Andre is shown seated at a desk inside a classroom as a staff member asks him several times to remove his coat. He stays still, apparently not responding or removing his coat, until he is given a shock.
He screams and falls to the floor, yelling as he tries to hide under his desk. He was eventually restrained face-down, a helmet on his head, without breaks for food, water or the bathroom.
Cheryl McCollins testified that, on visiting Andre three days afterwards, he was “catatonic.” She had him admitted to the hospital on the same day; Andre was diagnosed with acute stress response caused by the shocks. She also described watching the video and hearing staff members laugh while Andre was on the floor.
The JREC was founded by a Harvard-trained psychologist, Matthew Israel, and has long attracted controversy, and disgust, among disability rights activists, parents and professionals. In May of 2011, Israel faced criminal charges for a 2007 incident in which two teenagers with disabilities who were residents at the JREC were wrongfully administered a number of shocks after a prank phone call by someone posing as a supervisor ordered them. As part of a deal with the Massachusetts state attorney office, Israel was ordered to step down as director of the JREC (the JREC’s website says that he announced his “retirement” on May 2, 2011) and put on probation for five years. A court-appointed monitor is to oversee JREC’s daily activities.
As Cheryl McCollins said to the jury according to Fox News, ”I never signed up for him [Andre] to be tortured, terrorized and abused. I had no idea, no idea, that they tortured the children in the school.”
My own teenage autistic son has struggled with many of the most challenging behaviors mentioned in regard to autism including self-injurious ones like head-banging. He has been doing a lot better now; the frequency of such difficult things is much decreased. There are ways to teach autistic children and children with disabilities that do not involve restraints, physical abuse or electric shock — torture — such as the JREC is charged with committing.
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